For the last week at SteynOnline we have been mourning the death of our dear friend Kathy Shaidle, and, as sometimes happens along the way at such times, a certain song lodged in my brain. As our Saturday movie columnist, Kathy wrote a lot about one very particular star, including a piece she'd filed with a title I hadn't quite registered before: "Bette Davis Lies."
And so a song I hadn't thought of in decades, and which I don't believe I've heard this century, started playing on the rusting Sony Walkman in the back of my head. And three or four times a day this week I'd find myself musing:
Her hair is Harlow gold
Her lips a sweet surprise
Her hands are never cold
She's got Bette Davis Eyes...
Which would remind me of Kathy all over again, and then I'd get very sad all over again. She was famously a Who fan, but I hope she won't mind this by way of lopsided tribute:
"Bette Davis eyes" was a common expression in the 1940s, but it was certainly on the wane by 1981. Kim Carnes put it back in circulation and in the ensuing years the phrase has been applied to more women in more novels and biographies than it was back in Miss Davis' screen heyday.
Donna Weiss, the lyricist, got the hook for the song when she was watching Jezebel on TV. Those Bette Davis eyes are certainly memorable in that film, but so's the hair. Yet, although Miss Davis gets top billing in the song, she's not the first movie star in the lyric:
Her hair is Harlow gold...
As in Jean Harlow, evidently a bit of a mystery to Kim Carnes fans, which is why lyrics websites tend to transcribe the line as:
Her hair is hollow gold
- which is an absolutely perfect rock lyric: the image sounds as if it ought to mean something even if it doesn't.
There's a third screen goddess mentioned in the song – "She's got Greta Garbo's stand-off sighs" – but, as Harlow, Garbo and Davis all well understood, it's the one in the title that counts.
Miss Weiss's composing partner was Jackie DeShannon, a talented singer best known for her hit version of the Bacharach & David song "What the World Needs Now (Is Love)". So Miss DeShannon went into the studio, and the track eventually found its way to the record producer George Tobin, who played it to one of his artists - Kim Carnes. She loved it: "The lyric killed me. Just the title — a song called 'Bette Davis Eyes'? I'm interested! I kept saying to George, 'I want to do that song!'"
But suddenly George Tobin wasn't so interested, and took to offering her other songs. One day, Donna Weiss called her up and asked, "Is it true that George Tobin played you 'Bette Davis Eyes' and that you really loved it?"
Miss Carnes said yes but George had let it slide. And Miss Weiss replied, "Well, the reason why George never brought it up again is because he came to me and said that he could get you to do this song if we gave him half the publishing [rights]. Jackie and I wouldn't do it."
And for a while that's all I knew about the song - that it was an example of attempted (and fairly common) sharp practice in the music biz.
And then some years later I learned a second interesting tidbit about the song, courtesy of my old BBC chum Paul Gambaccini. Paul has now succeeded the legendary Alan Freeman as presenter of the Beeb's "Pick of the Pops" every Saturday afternoon, but back then he was coming in to talk about movies on some show I was hosting. If memory serves, the Temptations were also on the guest list that day. And somewhere in the general chitchat Kim Carnes came up: Her record of "Bette Davis Eyes" had got to Number One on the Billboard Hot 100 (just under forty years ago – May 16th 1981) – and Paul said, as one does (or at any rate as he does, effortlessly), that it has the distinction of being the first Number One song to mention the full name of a real person since Bill Hayes topped the charts with "The Ballad Of Davy Crockett" in March 1955.
Okay. If that's not a cue for a song, I don't know what is:
And before that you have to go back to "Casey Jones", by Billy Murray and the American Quartet, the biggest-selling record in America for most of the summer of 1910:
Unlike the late Congressman Crockett (who died in 1836, a hundred-and-twenty years before he hit Number One), and Engineer Jones (who would never have had a song written about him in the first place if he hadn't die in circumstances sufficiently dramatic to inspire one), Miss Davis was still around in 1981 to hear the number that bore her name. She dropped a line to Kim Carnes, Jackie DeShannon and Donna Weiss thanking them for making her "a part of modern times" and giving her a new cachet with her grandson. She sent roses when "Bette Davis Eyes" went on to win the Grammy for Song Of The Year and Record Of The Year.
Anyway, all that started me thinking about proper names in songs. When my youngest developed an interest in Frankenstein, I showed him the scene from Mel Brooks' film where Gene Wilder (another Shaidle favorite) gets the monster to join him in "Puttin' On The Ritz":
Baron von Frankenstein: Dressed up like a million-dollar trouper
Trying hard to look like Gary Cooper
Monster: Super duper!
- or, as Peter Boyle renders it, a consonant-less Neanderthal roar. Which my son greatly enjoyed. And at the end of it he asked: "Who's Gary Cooper? Is he another monster?"
That must be one of the most famous of lyrical namechecks. As is another from earlier in the song:
Come let's mix
Walk with sticks
In their mitts
Puttin' On The Ritz...
You can go on about no War for Oil, but what about no warbling for oil? In the Depression, the founder of Standard Oil turned up on the Hit Parade every other week – "If I never have a cent/I'll be rich as Rockefeller" ("Sunny Side Of The Street") and "Even John D Rockefeller/Is looking for a silver lining" ("Let's Have Another Cup Of Coffee (And Let's Have Another Piece Of Pie)") – and he was still powering hit songs in the Sixties when that goofy duet by Esther and Abi Ofarim, "Cinderella Rockefella", became the biggest-selling record ever to come out of any Israeli pop act:
When it comes to getting your full name (correctly spelled) in the title, the pickings get slimmer. "John Brown's Body" was a long time ago. And even "Joan Of Arc, They Are Calling You" was a century ago (Number Two in 1917 for Henry Burr). There are plenty of songs about Jesus, although Warren Zevon's "Mohammed's Radio" (royalty checks be upon him) is so far ploughing a lonely furrow. But, if you eliminate religion and political causes ("Free Nelson Mandela"), the great personalities of the ages rarely make it into the song catalogue: Elton John wrote "Roy Rogers" and (post-Randy Bachman) Bachman-Turner Overdrive "Amelia Earhart" and, around the same time as Kim Carnes was retinally scanning Bette Davis, Haysi Fantayzee were doing the same for the Duke's pins in "John Wayne Is Big Leggy" and Madness and Bananarama were hymning latterday thespians in, respectively, "Michael Caine" and "Robert De Niro's Waiting (Talking Italian)". Confirming that the Eighties were the heyday of name-brand pop, Mrs Blake Carrington from "Dynasty" is immortalized in "Linda Evans" by the Walkabouts. Very few people get their initials in the title ("Franklin D Roosevelt's Back Again"), but I believe F Lee Bailey is the only non-President to do so, in "The F Lee Bailey Blues" (Sugar Ray and the Bluetones).
Joe DiMaggio belongs to a special category: "Joltin' Joe DiMaggio" was a monster hit for Les Brown in the Forties, and a generation later he reappeared with one memorable line in an even bigger hit: "Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?" On the other hand, the former Mrs DiMaggio had a big hit written about her in the Seventies, and a generation later it reappeared as an even bigger hit, briefly the biggest-selling record of all time, with Marilyn Monroe shoved aside in favor of the late Princess of Wales: "Candle In The Wind", reborn as "Goodbye, England's Rose".
Every songwriter wants a universal song, and writing about anyone other than Princess Di is likely to get too specific – unless, of course, you do one of those songs that's "about" a real person but gets treated as just a regular love song, like Neil Sedaka's "Oh, Carol" (ie, Carole King) or Toto's "Rosanna" (Arquette) or Buddy Clark's charmer of a record with the Ray Noble in 1946, "Linda". This is what you might call a protean rock video:
The song was a kind of baby gift by songwriter Jack Lawrence to a newborn girl, Linda Eastman of the famous photographic family. Miss Eastman grew up and married Paul McCartney, and you've never heard a less Linda McCartneyesque song than "Linda".
So, when you look at the precedents, a number called "Bette Davis Eyes" wouldn't seem to have a lot going for it. And it didn't, not back in 1974 when it was written. Donna Weiss took the lyric over to the home of Jackie DeShannon, and Miss DeShannon wrote most of the tune. As noted above, her biggest hit in the Sixties had been a Bacharach & David composition, but she always saw herself as a singer-songwriter, and so she wrote songs with herself in mind. Miss DeShannon's "Bette Davis Eyes" had a kind of honky-tonk feel:
That arrangement is about as un-Bette Davis as you can get, and it was never going to be a hit.
Six years later, it was a dramatically different reading – heavy on the synth work by Bull Cuomo – that propelled Kim Carnes' version to Number One in 21 countries:
She'll expose you
When she snows you
Off your feet with the crumbs she throws you...
"Bette Davis Eyes" is also the only song about a real person to inspire another song about a real person. In Britain it provoked a pastiche by Half-Man Half-Biscuit about ITV's legendary sports announcer, "Dickie Davies Eyes". That didn't go to Number One in 21 countries.
Did you know Kim Carnes wrote a song recorded by Sinatra? "You Turned My World Around", on his 1974 album Some Nice Things I've Missed:
Kim Carnes was a busy lady between high school and "Bette Davis Eyes". And that proved such a blockbuster she couldn't crawl out from under it. Thereafter, she never got higher than Number Twenty-Eight on the hit parade. Here, for posterity, is the moment when Bette Davis eyes met Kim Carnes eyes, although all four seem to be avoiding eye contact:
Oh, we can't end without Bette Davis singing. Here she is in Thank Your Lucky Stars with a meditation (by Arthur Schwartz and Frank Loesser) on the central problem of dating during wartime - the only guys still around are either too young or too old:
Maybe, back in 1981, Bette Davis should have recorded a song called "Kim Carnes Hair"...
~Kathy Shaidle's column on "Bette Davis Lies" can be found here.
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